The song that left me speechless: In Studio 111, music and poetry let youth in detention be heard

The student who said she "didn't know no beautiful" created a track that became our flagship of creative excellence

Published April 15, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Studio 111 (Photo illustration by Salon/Photo courtesy of Radical Reversal)
Studio 111 (Photo illustration by Salon/Photo courtesy of Radical Reversal)

"But what if you don't know no beautiful?"

As many times as I've been inside the carceral state conducting writing workshops — listening and reading memories of trauma, pain — the quote coming from the young student inside Ross G. Bell Jefferson County Youth Detention Center in Birmingham, Alabama, hit me hard, like a gut punch. I'm never at a loss for words dealing with difficult situations, but hearing this, at that moment, inside that detention center, chilled me to the bone matter. I scanned my mind for the appropriate words/sentences to motivate this student, because it seemed, at least to me, necessary that she find something beautiful in all the ugliness that drapes the landscape of her existence.

If race is a scratched vinyl record, then the needled groove stays stuck on the Magic City, that place known for whistling dixie and dynamite blast, where railroad tracks were assembled long ago to demarcate and divide an already divided existence. I did not know at that time, but this interaction with Lil K from Alpha Unit, in Room 111, would reaffirm and fine-tune the mission and goal of Radical Reversal, and that is to amplify the dialogue concerning incarceration and create justice, racial and rehabilitation equity through creative outlets inside mortar and brick places many have deemed to be outdated and are searching for alternative solutions.

Besides operating as a social justice poetry band, we install creative/performance/spaces in detention centers and correctional facilities.

How did we get here?

In 2021, our organization, Radical Reversal, received a Creative Capital award that would allow us to imagine and begin our quest to implement the impossible. A collaboration between myself and composer/multi-instrumentalist Devin Brajha Waldman, Radical Reversal's core mission is to improve rehabilitative services for those entangled within the criminal justice system. We are interested in projects that explore how art can play pivotal roles in social justice reform while offering pathways for artists to give back. These installed spaces present the flexibility to conduct poetry workshops, seminars in music and music production, readings and performances.

Originally, we were slated to focus on Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault and Suffolk County House of Corrections in Boston as part of our proposal.

Ms. Monique Grier, the Director at Birmingham's YDC, and I had been trying to connect on the recommendation of a childhood friend who'd recently retired as a correction officer at that facility to do programing with Freedom Reads, a nonprofit organization that installs bookcases filled with books on the "inside," of which I am a Literary Ambassador. My friend told me, Ms. Grier different. This was during the infancy of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ms. Grier and I failed to make a serious connection on any type of programming. I had all but given up doing anything of significance in my home state.

After receiving the award, I placed one more call to Ms. Grier, and upon hearing about the scope of our newly awarded project, she invited me to fly down from New Jersey and discuss Radical Reversal in her office in Birmingham. When we talked face to face at the YDC, and as I explained our vision and mission, Ms. Grier became excited about offering something different for the young kids there. My childhood friend was correct. Ms. Grier different.

This was my first time dealing with someone with this much authority, so close to the carceral state, that operated differently, like they had been on the frontlines of the justice system, and understood justice isn't black and white, though it often is. With that said, perception versus reality will always lead one to an incorrection conclusion. There are "keyholders" that want change as much as any social justice organization out there.

Ms. Grier proceeded to show me Room 111.

Room 111

Room 111 was cluttered with rustic metal cabinets and desks along with a staidness, as if waiting to be resuscitated back to life. On the back right wall sat a tiny desk with a computer the YDC used for virtual court appearances during the pandemic. Nothing about this space wreaked creativity; yet, I could envision the picture behind the picture. I could imagine the unique access we would have to tell a unique story. Birmingham would be our pilot program. I willingly said, "Yes, we'll take it!"

During the interim, the Radical Reversal team ordered a plethora of musical equipment and instruments, the same ones our band used as a sample to receive the Creative Capital award and would be our first album: "Not One Real MF."

The next time we arrived at Room 111, a mountain of boxes lined the outside door. When we entered, the clutter had evaporated, the walls had been stripped naked and freshly painted, new carpet graced the flooring and, in artist's terms, a blank canvas awaited us to imagine what a radical reversal might look like on the "inside." Like kids in a candy store, we opened the boxes, placing each piece against a backdrop in Room 111 that would never be the same. The ProRak studio workstation would host the brain, complete with a Mac Studio M1 Pro, a Scarlett Focusrite 18i20 interface, an MPC ONE, two Yamaha HS8 monitors and a midi keyboard. We situated it on the left back wall, dead center. Building from that epicenter, we lined the corner of the desks on each side with two keyboards on stands. On the wall furthest from the epicenter, we placed a Pearl jazz drum kit with an acoustic drum shield for sound protection.

Against the wall, closest to the door, we positioned the guitars, both lead and bass, on stands adjacent to their amps. We filled sections of the walls with black and grey acoustic foam panels to control sound as well. Closer to the studio workstation, on each side, we placed condenser mics on boom stands with vocal shields for recording. Maintenance installed the 50-inch flatscreen we ordered on the wall behind the epicenter, which we linked to the Studio Mac M1 on the desk via HDMI for visual instruction. Lastly, we arched a wide semi-circle of chairs in the middle of the room for class and workshop.


After setup, I walked into each housing pod escorted by Ms. Grier. In each, there awaited a level of anticipation, bordering on excitement — word had gotten out about the studio. I presented a brief synopsis of our rotating two-week program, explaining the concept of Radical Reversal, my own personal journey from the streets to prison to Ph.D., and how it was creative inquiry that offered me a pathway to another life centered with a moral compass, one I wanted desperately. These young people were curious but reserved, as if they didn't trust what they were hearing, as if they'd been lied to more times than they could remember, as if this was a pipe dream, literally.

The potential students were required to submit answers to a questionnaire Ms. Grier and I designed for our first students to enter the pilot program. Going over the answers in her office, one particular response caught our attention. When asked: Why do you want to be in this program? The answer was: Everything I've ever wanted to do in life is right in front of me. I have never had this kind of opportunity. I will make the best of it.

Before we picked the initial eight students that would rotate every two weeks, we brought each unit to visually see the creative space, to let them know the buzz regarding a recording studio being placed at the YDC was not a figment of someone's imagination, but it was real, tangible, here — right now. Then, with the last group, the unexpected happened.

During my presentation, one of the correctional officers said he could play lead guitar, and in the semi-circle, the so-called ex-felon and the correctional officer began creating at the intersection of poetry and music. He strummed a tune alongside the MPC One beat our Radical Reversal producer on-site Travis Scott created while I read from "#289-128: Poems," and we were collaborating, had ascended that thing they call prison, if only for a moment. The magic was evident, and we would rename the space Studio 111.


They came, the generation of the forgotten, with no expectations to live an alternate reality, where a bullet could be a clarion call to death and a switchblade an archeological wonder. These young students didn't know the language of hosannas, only the hollowed-out echo of shotgun houses dead with racial memories. They came from places where the sun forgets to shine, and any given day could draw a body outlined in chalk. They came from dots on the city map where nothing grows, railroad tracks divide and loop communities into a noose, and it's all by design, as in pigmentation is the flashpoint to the slow erasure of a people.

Gunshot wounds, broken wings, battle scars and, most of the time, the cross inside the barrel's scope is where they resided.

These young people were curious but reserved, as if they didn't trust what they were hearing, as if they'd been lied to more times than they could remember, as if this was a pipe dream, literally.

When we began poetry workshops, these kids — not almost all, but all — arrived from heartbreaking, troubling situations, where the social structure in which they were expected to thrive gave little to no hope in life as presently presented. And yet, we as a society expect containment and confinement to be the answer to a systemic problem that has plagued our nation since the conception of the criminal justice system. For these young people, gunplay is not a downloadable video game, and survival on a human level often requires some sort of illegal activity. But then too, they were curious young minds, and this curiosity ran the gamut from theology to sociology. I talked to them as I would my curious students at the University of New Haven, treated them no different and asked that they think outside of themselves in order to understand the systems in life they were up against, and then write about it. We laughed and cried in that space. I'm thinking about the poem from WB, a student with great verbal skills who could not rise above talking about violence in his raps. Over time, we gained his trust, the armor dropped, and we learned we were dealing with a kid who slept on the floor, wore the same clothes every day, saw his friends die by the bullet, and admitted: It gets real scary in the hoods sometimes.

Alpha Unit

Because the girls had been on lockdown, we did not work with them until a month into the program. Their pod was adjacent to Studio 111, and when movement happened for them, they would have to pass by the studio when we were recording, on the open mic, or creating music on the beat machines. The girls were curious, would sneak glances inside the rectangle window pane, trying to get a full picture of what the space looked like. When we finally brought Alpha Unit inside Studio 111, the first thing they wanted to do was listen to the tracks and poems the boys laid down. After reviewing a few songs and poems we played, they all looked at each other, and one of the students blurted out, Oh, we got them! 

Like the boys, the girls wrote about violence and gunplay, which we let them do initially because we always meet our students in the languages they practice and begin from there. Of course, we want them to articulate their lived reality, but what we did not want was for them to write in a way that would predict their return inside a cell. After close to two weeks of working with these students, we sat in the semicircle, and I asked each to imagine or peel through all the ugly in their lives and formulate something beautiful out of the wreckage.

That is when Lil K sheepishly raised her hand and inquired: But what if you don't know no beautiful?

Like I said, the response shook me. I'd witnessed a lot on the streets of Washington, D.C., and other cities. I've been in unimaginable hellholes (crack dens, trap houses), broke bread with all kinds of night dwellers and hustlers, and yet Lil K's response rendered me speechless for a second. I regrouped, and thought about it. I gave her the same two questions to answer in essay format that were given to me while in Montgomery County Detention Center in the Jail Addiction Services Program (JAS), questions that unlocked my voice, allowing me to begin to express myself and communicate with people, something I never did. I kept feelings and emotions close to the vest.

We want them to articulate their lived reality, but what we did not want was for them to write in a way that would predict their return inside a cell.

I asked Lil K to let it spill on the page. To this day, I do not fully know the answers to what she wrote, so I will not reveal the questions. I told her I didn't want to see what she'd written; this was for her to go back to and reflect upon, by herself, in solace, alone. I did ask if she would like to grab pieces of what she'd written and write either a poem or a rap, which she agreed to do. Lil K stepped to the mic and began with:

I never had it easy/got it out the mud/watched my momma start to fiendin/you know what it was

And then, the words she mouthed would not come, what she had written was too emotional for her reflective memory. We told her it was OK, the girls in the semi-circle told her it was OK, the correctional officers told her it was OK. Before Lil K left, we asked if she would like to come back by herself and record, and she agreed as long as her friend "E" from the unit could accompany her. 

The next day, we brought them into the studio. Lil K seemed to have gained confidence and was adamant about recording what she'd written. Dez Wilson, cofounder along with Dr. Martez Files of Black Arts Academy — one of our collaborative partners in Birmingham — had been working on a musical sketch on the MPC One, which she liked and chose. Travis Scott, our Radical Reversal producer, proceeded to record the vocals, and we all began to collaborate on what would become "Ain't No Love in the Streets." "E" would later add the refrain Ain't No Love in the Streets when we would edit and fine-tune the cut over numerous sessions.

What I witnessed as an instructor in the room was the creative arts having the power to transform. Not only Lil K, but the correctional officers, the RR team — we all worked as a unit to help this one person achieve something. After hearing a draft I sent, poet and Guggenheim Fellow Patrick Rosal added a flute, Radical Reversal's Brendan Regan laid down a guitar groove for melodic tone, and this song that originated from the student who didn't know no beautiful became the flagship of creative excellence in Studio 111.

End Game

Where students once came with broken wings and busted hearts only to realize through the creative process they could soar, others came to witness what they had heard through the community grapevine. When court judges, city council people, politicians — including Birmingham Mayor Randle Woodfin, among others — came to visit Studio 111, we always played the song created by Alpha Unit's Lil K. We made sure Lil K was in the room to hear the handclaps, the cheers, the standing ovations for a young student trying to find her [self] inside a detention center. Each time, Lil K seemed as if she was living inside a dream of perfect morality, that these respected people were now respecting her, her work, and the possibility of what she could be. I witnessed a once unsure kid become sure of her [self] and become a leader in the collaborative process with students in Alpha Unit. Often, during workshop, Lil K took control of the room, helping others through analysis and deconstructing their work. Her energy became contagious.  

They say if you build it, they will come. If you love on it, it will prosper and grow — maybe not in traditional terms or norms, but nothing about these kids is traditional.

We developed a Radical Reading Series with some of the most visible poets publishing in contemporary America, authors and scholars these kids would have never had a chance to interact with. Poet Laureates Ashely M. Johnson (Alabama), Willie Perdomo (New York), Frank X Walker (Kentucky), NAACP Finalist DaMaris Hill (University of Kentucky) and Mississippi Book Award Winner Derick Harriell (University of Mississippi), to name a few. Legendary rap artist Talib Kweli was gracious enough to zoom in and spend a solid hour with the kids listening to their musical aspirations and talking hip-hop and poetry. When the musician Masego, who'd been working with Drake and was in town for the World Games, got word of the studio at YDC, he came and visited with the students for two hours in Studio 111. After hearing "Ain't No Love," he left them an original Masego beat to work on! When I asked Ms. Grier did she know what that meant, she replied, "Yes, Randall, I know!"

They say if you build it, they will come. If you love on it, it will prosper and grow — maybe not in traditional terms or norms, but nothing about these kids is traditional. The YDC is in perhaps one of the most economically depraved sections of Birmingham and there is nothing beautiful in the architecture or geography that surrounds this carceral structure. So, we decided to love on this one little place where kids will never receive opportunities others are privileged or lucky enough to have. Even though we are gone, we are still connected and committed to programming and amplifying the project in Birmingham to get the most out of Studio 111. That began with a commitment for me to zoom into the YDC until Lil K left, which was three months later. That commitment also means seeking continuous support through grants and donations to make this YDC a model for rethinking how we deal with young people.

The pilot program in Birmingham was pivotal to the growth and success of the Radical Reversal experience as a bourgeoning organization. We learned if you have a willing collaborative partner inside the carceral state, change can come, that when we are talking about outcomes and assessments for kids, we need new rubrics, methodologies and measuring models, ones that are compassionate in understanding what a person is capable of, if given the chance. Since that time, we have installed creative spaces at Suffolk County House of Corrections inside the PEACE unit, which is for 18–22-year-old young men, and most recently we finished up installation at Minnesota-Faribault Department of Corrections. Radical Reversal has taken what we've learned in Birmingham to provide the best program possible.

At some point doing the negotiation period with DOC officials, I will most assuredly get the question: What is the purpose? I tell them I do not know if these students will become writers or artists, because that is not the goal, though we encourage and provide opportunities to all who display talent that can excel at the highest level. Without hesitation, I channel Lil K, and tell them, "What we are after is to make human beings whole, make them feel like they have some kind of self-worth in this unforgiving society. Through the creative process, we want them to believe they can do anything."

By Randall Horton

Randall Horton is the author of "{#289-128}: Poems," which received the 2021 American Book Award; "Dead Weight: A Memoir in Essays;" "Hook: A Memoir," which received the Great Lakes College Association 2017 Award for Creative Nonfiction; and three additional poetry collections. The recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature, Horton is a Cave Canem Fellow and a member of the Affrilachian Poets, as well as the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders, which received the 2018 American Book Award in Oral Literature. He is the co-creator of Radical Reversal, a poetry/music band dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system through the installation of recording studios and creative/performance spaces as well as programming in Department of Correction facilities in the United States. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he now resides in New Jersey and is a Professor of English at the University of New Haven. 

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